Launching a Substack storyletter — progress and plans
I decided towards the end of last year that I was going to launch a fiction newsletter on the Substack platform. Tall and Tiny Tales went live on 1 February.
Substack seems to be rather the flavour of the month, although evaluations differ, and some, if I may say so, miss the point entirely. Substack isn’t really a community like Medium. It’s primarily a publishing platform. Your potential readership isn’t other Substackers: it’s anyone who likes to read your genre online. (Truly: forget about other Substackers. Stats on them are irrelevant.) The snag is: you have to do all the publicity for your publication yourself. No friendly algorithms are going to carry your word to the masses.
Anyhow, rather than giving other would-be Substackers a whole lot of ‘sage advice’ here — which would be a bit presumptuous seeing as how I’m a total noob — I thought I’d just tell you what I’m doing, why, and how it’s going. You decide yourself whether you would do it this way.
My main aim is to build a stable (loyal, growing, participatory) reader community for my online fiction. These should be people who are only there because they want to read my work, and are committed to following serialised stories from beginning to end.
A secondary aim is to build a potential readership for my future published (print and ebook) fiction.
A tertiary aim is that the whole project should eventually pay for itself, with an income stream from paid subscriptions.
Weekly short fiction
Each Tuesday I publish a stand-alone short story or a chapter from a longer story (up to 10 chapters total). Each one is a 5–10 minute read. I aim to write enjoyable, well-written contemporary fiction with an Aussie flavour.
Each instalment is illustrated by one of my original photographs or artworks — absolutely no stock images. For me, the illustration is an integral part of the story and my offer to the reader.
I also record and publish every story as a podcast episode. There’s no AI — just me, reading my story. This is one of my favourite parts of the whole Substack publishing routine.
I avoid anything that smacks of marketing. With very few exceptions, the only email communication my subscribers get from me is the weekly story. The ‘very few exceptions’ will be announcements of new features which subscribers might like to know about, no more than three or four times a year.
I aim to be 100% consistent and transparent. My stories are uploaded and scheduled several weeks in advance. When you sign up, you know what you’re going to get, and when you’re going to get it.
Two months in, it’s going quite well. I have over 70 free subscriptions, and most subscribers seem to be reading and/or listening to most episodes. Looking at the stats below, the big spike was the launch. It looks as if about half the initial casual visitors liked what they saw and decided to stick around.
A note of caution, though: visits don’t necessarily correspond to unique visitors one-to-one. The important thing is that the storyletter has built a modest regular readership and is retaining it.
Promotion attempts and how they went
Paid ads on Facebook and Pinterest were fun to do, quite cheap, and resulted in some traffic, but brought very few extra sign-ups. I’ll continue to work on this.
Groups on Facebook has been the big one so far. I’ve been a long-term member of two community groups: about 60% of sign-ups came from a couple of posts in these groups. It helps that I write fiction inspired by local places. I’m thinking about other community groups I can plausibly join …
Friends on Facebook have not been a major source of sign-ups. The few exceptions are appreciated all the more. I’ve puzzled over this and come to a few tentative explanations:
- My FB friends are not big online readers.
- My writing is not to their taste.
- We’re all groaning under a burden of emails, subscriptions and online commitments already.
- My friends are weirded out by the fact that the person they thought they knew has a ‘secret’ life as a fiction writer. (Like the time my Dad started writing porn novels – but that’s a whole other story …)
The response from my Medium followers has been mixed. Those who have signed up: thank you! Those who haven’t (yet😜): I appreciate that you’re busy writing your own work, and that following and reading me on Medium is already a commitment — and a compliment.
Introducing paid subscriptions
The time will soon come when I’m ready to launch paid subscriptions. This is a tricky time for a Substacker and has to be done carefully to avoid alienating free subscribers. Here are my personal rules:
1 Differentiate paid and free posts clearly.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to simply offer ‘more of the same’ to paid subscribers … and it’s a terrible idea to suddenly require free subscribers to pay for what they’re used to getting free!
Pondering this, I realised that my writing fell neatly into two types: short stories and novellas. Readers who like a new short story every few weeks might not like to sit through three months of the same novella.
My solution is to offer the Friday Novella as a separate, paid subscription. Hurrah! An excuse to draw another logo:
2 Recruit paid subscriptions only from free subscribers.
Free subscribers already know and enjoy my work. It’s easy to let them know about the paid subscription option and they’re already familiar with how Substack works.
3 Retain free subscribers.
On no account must my lovely free subscribers be made to feel that they are ‘second best’. I promised them good-quality weekly stories and that’s exactly what I will continue to give them.
4 Prepare the paid subscription launch carefully.
Novella readers are less likely to jump onboard mid-novella, so I need to generate interest pre-launch, get those subscriptions … hold my breath … and take the plunge (even if I only have three paid subscribers – yikes).
The launch will be a three-stage process:
- Two free episodes to give subscribers time to get on board
Fingers crossed, eh? I plan to launch Steve Fendt’s Friday Novella on 1 July.🤞
I could easily go earlier: the first two novellas are already written. It’s tempting, but I feel that 5–6 months in is the right time to introduce innovations, rather than bamboozling people who are just settling in.
Featured image: ‘Break of Day’ © Steve Fendt; artwork from ‘Lethe’ – my latest short story on Substack.